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123 posts from January 2018

January 31, 2018

Teachers' unions say House Republican bill puts them at risk

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The teachers' union in Miami-Dade is one that has said the bill could cause them to become decertified. WALTER MICHOT |The Miami Herald

TALLAHASSEE — It’s only a few lines tucked inside a 200-page bill in the Florida House. But teachers’ unions across the state are raising alarms, saying the proposed rule could expose public school teachers to major pay cuts and job losses.

The rule requires teachers’ unions — and only teachers’ unions — to maintain 50 percent membership among the total number of teachers eligible to be part of their groups or risk getting decertified.

Representatives with the United Teachers of Dade, the largest local teachers’ union in Florida, said its membership is currently just below 50 percent and would be hurt by the new rule if it led to the decertification of the union.

“Thirty thousand employees would lose planning time, there would be no limit on meetings they’d have to attend, no duty-free lunch, they can stay long hours after school and be fired at any moment,” said Karla Hernandez Mats, the president of that union. She added that if this bill passes, “many teachers should be prepared to have no job next year.”

The language for the 50 percent rule appeared in a different bill, HB 25, which passed the House floor but had no companion in the Senate, rendering its chances for success fairly slim. The original bill would have applied to all unions except for police and fire.

But the teacher’s unions threshold was added this week to HB 7055, the House’s major omnibus education bill that addresses numerous issues, from computerized testing to school governance to funding vouchers for bullied students — a major priority for House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

That means a measure that endangers teachers’ unions is now tied to a bill rapidly advancing through House committees despite loud protests from Democrats.

“Since when have we come to a place where you don’t want individuals to represent themselves?” said Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee. “What we can’t do is silence the mouths of people.”

Earlier this week, Jones vowed to negotiate with Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, the education committee chair, to take the language on teachers’ unions out of HB 7055. However, when the bill was passed along party lines through House Appropriations on Wednesday, the union portion remained.

Bileca said the bill isn’t targeting teachers, but can only include teachers’ unions because it’s an education bill and thus can only deal with education issues.

The 50 percent threshold is intended to preserve the rights of the majority, Bileca said.

“A minority leadership ... is not a voice for the majority,” he said.

He emphasized that because the ideas included in HB 7055 have been “thoroughly vetted” by going through separate committees before they were combined, they were fair game to be packaged together.

This union measure puts yet another strain on the distrustful relationship between public schools and the Legislature, which has spent much of its energy pushing through bills promoting school choice. Last session, a similar mega-bill, HB 7069, was passed late during session. It has since been challenged in court by some school districts.

In other states, hits to teachers’ unions have had big consequences. In 2011, Wisconsin voted to restrict the bargaining power of teachers’ unions and required an annual vote for them to remain certified. That school year, about 11 percent of teachers there left the profession, according to an analysis by the left-leaning Center for American Progress Action Fund.

“They don’t even try to hide it. They just want to eliminate the teachers’ union,” said Mike Gandolfo, president of the Pinellas County Teachers Association.

The privatization of schools is the ultimate goal, said Gandolfo, which would be made easier if the teachers’ unions are eliminated because “no else is standing in their way.”

Pinellas County’s union, as well as the one in Pasco, hovers close to the 50 percent membership cutoff, Gandolfo said. In the summers, older teachers retire and new teachers attend orientation, a transition period when membership dips.

“I assume they’re going to choose the most nefarious time,” Gandolfo added.

Rep. Manny Diaz, Jr., R-Hialeah, chair of the House PreK-12 Appropriations Committee, said districts will benefit from the new rules.

“Every school district that we talk to, every superintendent they always say they want more flexibility,” he said. “This provides more flexibility and it’s really a choice for the membership I don’t see how this doesn’t benefit in any way any side other than the districts themselves.”

He dismissed allegations from several union leaders that he would personally gain from a weakened public teachers’ unions. He is the Chief Operating Officer for Doral College, which is affiliated with prominent charter company Academica.

While the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association has said its membership is “well over” the 50 percent margin, its executive director Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins still had misgivings about the rule.

“The teacher’s union has been very vocal in some of the horrific things they have done to public education in the last several years,” she said. “I think this is clearly retribution for vocally opposing the selling off of public schools.”

Tampa Bay Times staff writer Jeffrey Solocheck contributed to this report.


Contact Emily L. Mahoney at [email protected]. Follow @mahoneysthename.

Florida Democrats protest all they want, but Republicans are pushing through huge education bill anyway.

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The House's new omnibus education package, HB 7055, passed the House Appropriations committee Wednesday along party lines, over bitter protests by Democrats who said the measure unfairly forced a take-it-or-leave-it strategy by the majority party.

The bill had grown by 89 pages since it was last heard in a House committee just last week. Among the items added:

  • new membership requirements for teachers' unions to stay certified, prompting unions to call this a "union-busting" effort
  • a "Medal of Honor Day"
  • funding for tax credit scholarships for bullied students — a top priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran's.

In its original 109 pages, the bill also:

  • scales back computerized testing
  • directs more than $9 million to a scholarship program for third-graders who struggle in reading
  • allows schools to create independent governing boards under the supervision of district school boards
  • expands a program to have excelling principals oversee multiple schools at once.

As an enticement for Democrats, it also adds accountability measures for private schools receiving state voucher funding.

"Once again we have this train," said Rep. Bobby DuBose, D-Fort Lauderdale, using legislative jargon to describe a bill with a bundle of unrelated items. "The problem is you have one side of the aisle that's crafting all the policy and shoving it one way."

DuBose said the divisiveness of the bill "almost breaks my heart" and "shines a very dark light on who we are and what we're capable of doing."

The bill has been fast-tracked since it was introduced Thursday and is already ready to go to the House floor.

House Republicans have contested the idea that it is "7069 on steroids," as Democrats have said, referring to last year's massive school choice bill that was rammed through in the final days of a special session. School districts have sued the Legislature over that bill, saying it violated the Florida Constitution's requirement that every bill stick to a single subject.

"There's a lot of great policy in there, there's one or two things that those who opposed the bill focused on," said chair of the House Education Committee Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, referencing the bullying vouchers that many of the Democrats opposed.

"But I think what we just did was basically take all the major concepts that are in the conforming bill and put them out for public debate, public discussion and we'll have lots of time left in session for the debate to go on."

Rubio asks DOT to expedite Everglades restoration project

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U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio sent a letter Wednesday to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao urging her to quicken the pace of critical Everglades restoration work.

The Florida Republican requested that Chao's department work with the Florida Department of Transportation to move faster on a project that would raise portions of Tamiami Trail in order to facilitate a project intended to free the southern flow of water into Everglades National Park and ease flooding problems to the north.

Here's the full text of the letter:

As the Secretary of Transportation, you serve an important role as the U.S. Department of Transportation’s representative on the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Taskforce. The Taskforce serves to coordinate all of the federal government’s multidisciplinary involvement in the restoration of America’s Everglades, the largest subtropical wilderness in North America and the main recharge source for drinking water drawn from South Florida’s aquifers.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has been a vital partner to Everglades restoration particularly with respect to the Tamiami Trail Modifications Next Steps Project. To date, this ongoing effort has focused on bridging portions of the Tamiami Trail (U.S. Highway 41) to allow the Department of the Interior’s Modified Water Deliveries to Everglades National Park (ModWaters) project to deliver significantly greater water volumes in a more natural sheetflow pattern into Everglades National Park. ModWaters is designed to raise water levels in the L-29 Canal adjacent to Tamiami Trail by up to 25%. With sufficient Tamiami Trail bridging to meet water delivery goals almost complete, ModWaters could begin operations to provide its full intended benefits for Everglades restoration as soon as the remainder of the roadway is modified to account for road safety and integrity concerns associated with higher L-29 canal water levels.

As such, I respectfully request your assistance in having DOT, including the Federal Highway Administration, work in cooperation with the Florida Department of Transportation, to identify federal resources that can be leveraged to allow the remaining unbridged sections of the Tamiami Trail through the historic Everglades to be raised expeditiously. Such work could also include the installation of additional culverts to allow enhanced distribution of sheetflow under the roadway as desired. These efforts are not only important for the long term survival of Everglades National Park’s natural wonders, but are also necessary to help prevent the kind of significant flooding event South Florida experienced after Hurricane Irma raised water levels north of the Tamiami Trail to historic highs.

Thank you for your attention to this request.

Russians ‘have something’ on Trump, Frederica Wilson says in Miami

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Miami Gardens Congresswoman Frederica Wilson criticized Donald Trump’s handling of congressionally ordered Russia sanctions Tuesday night during a boycott of his state of the union speech, suggesting the president has taken it easy on Russia because “they have something on him.”

“The House and Senate voted on all kinds of sanctions against Russia. Now, the president yesterday announced he wasn’t going to impose those sanctions,” she said just before a press conference with the Miami media inside an Overtown church. “They have something on him. And if he imposes sanctions against Russia, they’re going to tell what they have on him.”

Click here to read more, including a statement Wilson released Wednesday to the Miami Herald.

Miami Congressional delegation reacts to Trump's Guantanamo order



President Donald Trump announced Tuesday night during his State of the Union speech that he’d just signed an executive order revoking an Obama-era decision to close the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, reviving a dormant debate over the nation’s use of the “world’s most expensive prison.”

Before Obama ordered the closure of the prison, it was frequently the source of debate. Supporters say the prison is a useful tool in the war on terrorism and keeps the federal government from housing enemy combatants on U.S. soil. Detractors say the indefinite detention of alleged terrorists was inhumane, counter-productive and an abuse of power.

Currently, there are 41 detainees at the Guantánamo Bay Navy Base. Of those, 10 are charged with war crimes at a war court created by President George W. Bush. Congress thwarted Obama’s closure aspiration by blocking the transfers of Guantánamo captives to the United States.

By proximity, no Congressional representatives are closer to the issue than those elected in South Florida. Click here to see how Miami’s Congressional representatives reacted:


Curbelo unhurt after GOP train collides with dump truck

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Miami Rep. Carlos Curbelo is unhurt after a train with dozens of GOP lawmakers on it collided with a dump truck on Wednesday morning, killing at least one person in the truck and severely injuring another. 

Curbelo was en route to the yearly Republican retreat at a resort in West Virginia when it collided with a truck just west of Charlottesville, Virginia. No lawmakers were seriously hurt in the collision according to multiple reports and several lawmakers with medical training stepped up to help the victims. 

"Thanks to all who have called and texted," Curbelo tweeted. "We’re blessed to be ok, and hoping the best for those who were on this truck." He also spoke to MSNBC about the accident. 

Miami Republican Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen were not on the train, according to their offices. Sen. Marco Rubio's office said he was not on the train.  

Florida's annual budget battle kicks into gear in Tallahassee

Florida lawmakers began the annual tussle over spending at the Capitol Wednesday as House and Senate committees worked on competing budget proposals.

The two chambers’ bottom lines are similar but their priorities differ.

The Senate budget is $87.3 billion and the House’s is $87.2 billion. Both are more than $2 billion above current spending when anticipated expenditures through June 30 are added, including recovery costs from Hurricane Irma.

“Overall, our budgets line up well,” said Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, the House’s budget chairman. He said a spike in spending is understandable in a fast-growing state of more than 20 million residents.

The House budget includes $230 million for programs recommended by a select hurricane preparedness committee, including beach and dune repair, a rental housing loan program and a study of expanding the Suncoast Parkway from Crystal River to the Georgia state line as a future hurricane evacuation route.

Senate spending on public schools relies on $434 million more in property tax payments from homeowners due to rising property values. The House considers that a tax hike and opposes it.

A flashpoint of disagreement is in higher education. Led by Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, senators want to spend nearly $400 million more on state universities, but the House wants to slash their budgets by $216 million.

Trujillo cited data from the 2017 session showing that universities’ budgets have grown in recent years at a faster rate than the rest of government.

The Senate wants to spend $150 million next year for Florida Forever, an open space preservation program that received no money in this year’s budget, angering its many champions. The House budget is for $8 million.

The House budget sweeps $397 million from single-purpose budget accounts known as trust funds, and the Senate would sweep $124 million. Democrats decried raids on two funds that build affordable housing.

“This is a race to the bottom,” said Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando. He blasted the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott for raiding housing accounts “while Puerto Ricans are sleeping in their cars."


Cable out? Bill in the legislature would require companies to credit you for missed service

After Hurricane Irma, millions of Floridians were out of cable service for days.

But if you didn’t want to pay for the service you didn’t get, you had to call Comcast or AT&T and ask for a credit.

A bill in the Legislature would change that, so that cable, landline phone companies and trash collectors would automatically credit your account for service you don’t receive.

The idea comes out of the aftermath of Irma, when Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, said he saw an "outpouring of complaints" about the three businesses.

"I didn't see those same businesses having the incentive to respond like I did with the electric utilities," Fine said.

But it has a tough road to becoming law. Cable companies say they don't all have the technology to track individual outages. Cities and trash companies say tracking customers is a new and unfair burden.

It passed a House committee meeting Monday, but not before Fine was grilled by Democrats, including Rep. Sean Shaw, D-Tampa.

The law would prevent trash companies from charging customers if their trash isn't picked up within four days of the normally scheduled day.

Cable and wired telephone companies would not be allowed to charge customers for service that has been out for more than 24 hours, as long as the outage was not caused by the customer or by a power outage at the customer's home.

Companies would be fined if they don't credit the customer's account. 

Fine said power companies are not included in the bill because they don't charge people when the power is out.

And that's one of the problems the cable industry has with the bill, said Brad Swanson, president and CEO of Florida Internet and Television, a trade group.

Cable companies are not metered services, and they don't always know when a customer's service is out.

"The system is way more complex than just a meter at the other end saying it’s 'on,'" Swanson said.

That's why cable companies rely on customers to notify them when service is out, and they give credits to customers who ask for it. 

They publicized the offer of credits after Irma last year. Swanson didn't know how many customers requested and were given credits.

Still, cable companies do have some idea who suffers an outage. After the storm, more than 7.5 million people did not have internet or cable service, according to data the companies gave the FCC. The FCC releases such data in the wake of major disasters, such as hurricanes.

And a week after the storm made landfall, nearly 900,000 cable and internet customers in Florida were still without service, according to the FCC.

Swanson said the industry is unregulated, and if cable companies aren't providing satisfactory service, customers can choose another service.

Fine believes the companies should know when a customer isn't receiving a service.

"Real businesses do their own quality control," Fine said. "They don't rely on customers to do it. And that's all this bill requires them to do."

January 30, 2018

Controversial "sanctuary cities" bill postponed, could be doomed in Senate

A controversial bill aimed at eliminating "sanctuary cities" was postponed today, after the bill's sponsor said he didn't have the votes for it to pass its first Senate committee.

Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, said that two of his Republican colleagues, Miami senators Anitere Flores and Rene Garcia, would have voted against it, producing a 6-to-4 vote against the bill. Postponing a vote means the bill is technically still alive.

"We would have lost today, but we're still hopeful," Bean said. "I've got some selling to do."

More than a hundred opponents packed a Senate hearing room to testify against the bill, and some supporters booed in opposition when Bean postponed the vote.

The bill is a favorite of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, a likely candidate for governor who released a fiery ad this week attacking "sanctuary" cities. The House passed the bill in the first week of this year's session.

But it was always considered a long shot in the Senate, which didn't even vote on the bill when it came up the last two years.

The bill would require police to honor all requests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold undocumented immigrants, even though judges have repeatedly ruled such holds unconstitutional.

And it would prevent any elected official from casting a vote in favor of a "sanctuary" policy — essentially, anything that impedes immigration agents from doing their jobs. Doing so would subject them to fines and possible removal from office.

Corcoran's explosive ad this week depicted a young red-haired woman being gunned down by "an illegal immigrant," an apparent reference to the 2015 death of Kate Steinle, who was shot in the back and killed by an undocumented immigrant in San Francisco.

“Incredibly, some Tallahassee politicians want to make Florida a sanctuary state,” he said in the ad.

Corcoran has said Florida has two "sanctuary cities:" St. Petersburg and Tallahassee, but both Democratic mayors of those cities dispute the claim. 

Nelson and Rubio urge the U.S. Senate not to forget about disaster aid



The U.S. Senate is operating on borrowed time, with less 10 days remaining until another potential government shutdown as a debate over immigration policy consumes Washington. 

But Florida Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio reminded their colleagues on Tuesday that the U.S. Senate hasn't passed a disaster relief bill in over three months, even though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said additional relief bills would come to help Florida, Puerto Rico, Texas and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

"There will be additional rounds, and we are all fully committed to meeting the needs that have arisen as a result of these devastating hurricanes," McConnell said in October. 

In back-to-back speeches on the Senate floor, Nelson and Rubio delivered a laundry list of arguments in favor of a new disaster relief bill that helps victims of Hurricanes Irma, Maria and Harvey along with wildfires in California. 

"I hope our colleagues in the Senate will understand the urgency of this matter," Nelson said. "We can't keep pushing this off down into the future. The need to act is now." 

Nelson said Florida received only $600 million of the $7.4 billion doled out in September for long-term disaster relief through the Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

"What percentage is that of $7.4 billion? It's well less than 10 percent. It defies comprehension," Nelson said. 

Nelson also listed a number of other issues that must be resolved through a disaster aid package, including Medicaid funding for Puerto Rico, help for Florida's citrus industry and additional funding for Florida schools dealing with a glut of new students from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

The Federal Emergency Management Administration is also set to end food and water aid in Puerto Rico this week as grocery stores reopen, a decision Nelson blasted. 

"I am absolutely shocked that FEMA has announced that on Wednesday, it will stop distributing food and water to Puerto Rico," Nelson said. "Cutting this aid to the people of Puerto Rico, almost a third of them who still do not have electricity, it's unconscionable, and it's a travesty." 

Rubio echoed many of the arguments made by Nelson. 

"Long after the cameras leave and long after the stories aren't being written real people and real lives are disrupted, sometimes permanently," Rubio said, pointing to floating debris in the Florida Keys and its negative impacts on tourism and business.  

"I am disappointed," Rubio said. "If you had told me that we would have gotten to the last week of January and still hadn't taken up disaster relief, I would have been surprised because we had a chance to actually address this at the end of last year. The House sent over a bill that didn't go far enough, the Senate had ideas about how to make it better and then for reasons involving leverage and using it as a tool to get people to vote for...short-term spending at the end its kind of been held up." 

Rubio also highlighted Puerto Rico's needs in a disaster aid package, adding that he would like to see the U.S. territory's Medicaid program addressed, a temporary payroll tax deduction and a temporary expansion of the child tax credit in Puerto Rico. 

It's unclear when a disaster relief bill will be addressed by the U.S. Senate. A proposal could be attached to the upcoming short-term spending bill or it could be brought up on its own.

"Do not forget about disaster relief...we have to get this done," Rubio said.